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Landmark Victory for Equal Pension Rights in Supreme Court Case

The Supreme Court today delivered its judgment in the long-running case of Walker v Innospec Limited and others [2017] UKSC 47. This case represents a significant turning point in respect of the pension rights for those in same-sex relationships. Mr Walker worked for Innospec from 1980 to 2003. During this time he paid into Innospec’s occupational pension scheme. He lived with his male partner from 1993, they became civil partners in 2006, and they are now married. The pension scheme provided for the surviving spouse of the employee but, when queried by Mr Walker, the firm confirmed that in the event of his death they would not pay his pension to his surviving husband. The firm refused to grant these rights to Mr Walker on the grounds that all of his service and pension contributions pre-dated the introduction of civil partnerships in the UK in 2005. As such, they claimed that discriminatory treatment is permitted in these circumstances under the provisions of the Equality Act 2010.

After battling through the Employment Tribunal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal, the Court of Appeal, and now the Supreme Court, Mr Walker now has a final decision in his case. The court held unanimously that the provisions of the Equality Act on which Innospec relied are incompatible with EU law and so must be disapplied. This means that Mr Walker’s husband is entitled to the same pension benefits as if he were a spouse of the opposite sex.

The case raised complex issues to do with interplay between EU and domestic legislation and case law. The judges needed to battle with issues concerning the retroactivity and future effects of legal provisions, and also when pension rights are accrued and crystallised. In coming to the decision that they have, the judges may well be seen as strengthening EU anti-discrimination law and re-confirming the primacy of EU law over domestic law. This could prove to be a politically charged decision with the start of the Brexit negotiations imminent.

In the joined case of O’Brien v Ministry of Justice [2017] UKSC 46, Mr O’Brien will need to wait a while longer to see if he can obtain similar rights to Mr Walker, but in the context of being a part-time worker. This case was also heard today, but referred from the Supreme Court to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Thomas Brownrigg (Solicitor) & Edward Nicklin (Paralegal)

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